Friday, December 19, 2008

Democracy Now! interview with Mike Klonsky & Deborah Meier

December 18, 2008

Obama’s Choice for Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, Seen as Compromise Between Divided Strands


As chief executive officer of the Chicago public school system, the third largest in the country, Education Secretary-designate Arne Duncan expanded charter schools and launched a performance pay plan for teachers. Duncan was seen as a compromise pick between progressive and conservative education advocates. We speak to Michael Klonsky, professor of education and longtime school reform activist in Chicago, and Deborah Meier, a well-known teacher, writer and public advocate. [includes rush transcript]


Michael Klonsky, professor of education and a longtime school reform activist in Chicago. He is the director of the Small Schools Workshop and author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.

Deborah Meier, spent more than four decades working in public education as a teacher, writer and public advocate. She is currently senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On Tuesday, President-elect Obama announced Chicago School Superintendent Arne Duncan as his nominee for Secretary of Education. Obama formally named him at a news conference at a Chicago school, where he outlined some of the challenges ahead.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: If we want to out-compete the world tomorrow, then we’re going to have to out-educate the world today. Unfortunately, when our high school dropout rate is one of the highest in the industrialized world, when a third of all fourth graders can’t do basic math, when more and more Americans are getting priced out of attending college, we’re falling far short of that goal.

JUAN GONZALEZ: As chief executive officer of the Chicago public school system, the third largest in the country, Arne Duncan expanded charter schools and launched a performance pay plan for teachers. In 2006, he called on Congress to double funding for the No Child Left Behind Act. At the news conference Tuesday, Obama praised Duncan as a reformer.

    PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: When it comes to school reform, Arne is the most hands-on of hands-on practitioners. For Arne, school reform isn’t just a theory in a book; it’s the cause of his life.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Duncan served as Obama’s education adviser during his presidential campaign and helped shape his education platform. After Obama formally named him, Duncan outlined part of the vision for the coming four years.

    ARNE DUNCAN: Our children have just one chance to get a quality education, and they need and deserve the absolute best. While there are no simple answers, I know from experience that when you focus on basics, like reading and math, and when you embrace innovative new approaches and when you create a professional climate to attract great teachers, you can create great schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Klonsky is a professor of education and a longtime school reform activist in Chicago. He is the director of the Small Schools Workshop and author of Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. He is joining us from Washington, D.C.—from actually Chicago.

We’re also joined on Skype by Deborah Meier, spent more than four decades working in public education as a teacher, writer and public advocate. She is currently senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University.

Let’s begin with Michael Klonsky in Chicago. Your assessment of Arne Duncan as the next Education Secretary?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Yes. Hi. You know, I think people on the left and progressive educators and school activists aren’t really thrilled about the pick of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education. I think part of the reason, though, is that he’s—I think he’s been too closely associated over the years with the Daley machine here in Chicago and with the No Child Left Behind policies coming out of the present Department of Education.

But I think Arne Duncan has the potential to be a good Secretary of Education, and I think he has some real positives going for him. So I kind of have a—I kind of see this whole thing as contested territory, and I don’t think we should—like most of Obama’s picks, I don’t think we should be dependent too much on, you know, this issue of this individual heading the department.

But I think—you know, I’ve had a lot of struggle and a lot of issues with Duncan over the years, and I think my main criticism is his relationship too much with the Daley machine and with No Child Left Behind and the fact that he is one of the people responsible for bringing in this wave of privatization and ownership society politics here in Chicago.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Michael, the way that this has been portrayed over the last few weeks in several of the national publications was this raging battle and pressure from educators, the more progressive ones supporting Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor out at Stanford and involved in school reform, the more conservative pressing for someone like Joel Klein, the chancellor here at the New York City schools. And Obama appears to have chosen a centrist candidate, in effect, to basically to avoid major criticism from both sides. Is that assessment accurate, in your view?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Yeah, I think it is. I think Duncan was kind of a safe pick, a middle ground pick, somewhere in between the most—more conservative union-busting types like Klein and—but I think that’s pretty typical of the way cabinet picks and the way Obama’s choices have been being made so far.

AMY GOODMAN: Deborah Meier, you’re a well-known school reform activist, currently a senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU. What are your thoughts on Arne Duncan and where you want to see education going in this country?

DEBORAH MEIER: Well, first of all, can you hear me?

AMY GOODMAN: We can. We can hear you. And for those people who are watching on TV, they can see you, as well. Just look directly into the lens of the Skype, as opposed to our picture.

DEBORAH MEIER: Alright. This is a new age. We spent an hour last night trying to make this thing work, and I don’t know that we quite got it right.

So, first of all, I think we’re—it’s not two sides. It’s sort of a—it’s different views about the purpose of education, and there are different views about how human beings learn well. And I think there’s a very predominant view right now that gets—has been called by the name of reform and that has nothing to do with red and blue. It’s a kind of market view of education, though. And I think there are a lot of people on the red side who are more close to my views and a lot of people of the blue side who are more close to Arne Duncan’s views. And that part does worry me, maybe even more than it does Klonsky, my friend Mike Klonsky, because it’s—I think we need a different discussion about what the point of education is.

And I was thinking about the data there is about how few kids graduate, even graduate. After all, less than half or half graduate, at best, from Chicago schools, and that’s excluding the number who never make it into high school in Chicago. But even those who graduate, how few manage to get to four-year schools or get a B.A. I think it’s three or four percent. And it’s that they’re not prepared for the kind of intellectual flexibility, the kind of tough-minded intellectual perseverance, really asking questions, thinking critically, that I think is essential for a democratic society. And I suspect it’s even going to be good for the economy, partly because politics and the economy overlap so much, as we can see these days.

But I think we’ve bought into, and Arne Duncan has bought into, the worst parts of the business mentality or the business model. I think there are things we can learn from the business world, but accountability is not one of them. And I think we’ve bought into some of the shoddiest accountability mindset, in which everybody is forced to lie. You know, high-stakes numbers means you play with the numbers. There’s something, I think, in sociology called Campbell’s Law: the higher the stakes, the more corrupt the data. And Obama, I think, quotes data about Chicago’s success, which I can’t expect him to be an expert on, but I’m enough of an expert to tell you it’s nonsense. And the test scores, NAEP test scores, which are the only test scores that are consistent around the nation, which shows no progress in the last seven, eight years in Chicago.

If you remember, we were preceded by another miracle worker in Chicago, Vallas, who is now producing miracles in New Orleans. And that’s—we had one after another superintendent comes in and produces a miracle, just as the previous Secretary of Education before Spellings, Rod Paige, came in from Houston claiming that there was a Houston miracle and, before that, there was a Texas miracle. And closer look at the data turned out to simply say it was somewhere between shoddy bookkeeping and lies. And I’ve engaged in that myself in the school business, because it’s so easy to do when we have such a narrow way of looking at school accountability.

I mean, kids who graduate our high school need to be kids who have learned to play with ideas—and that starts in kindergarten—who learn to ask uncomfortable questions, who are in the presence of adults who are used to asking uncomfortable questions and persevering.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Debbie Meier, I’d like to ask you whether you were surprised both—in terms of the teachers union, both Randi Weingarten, the head of the AFT, and the head of the Chicago Teachers Union both praised Duncan as somebody who at least is accessible and willing to hear them out.

DEBORAH MEIER: I think they’re being politically smart, which I don’t have to be. And maybe they see something in these people that I don’t know about. I mean, they’re both possible, that I’m wrong, and there’s a possibility that they’re being political. Are you still seeing me? Hello?


AMY GOODMAN: We see you just fine.

DEBORAH MEIER: OK, OK. My screen went off.

So, part of that is, once you’ve posed the issue as being union lackeys or reformers—and the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, a variety of magazines, as you mentioned earlier, have said there are two sides: unions lackeys, people who want to—who are worrying—you know, who are dependent upon the union, and on the other side are real reformers. I think it made it hard for the union to speak for its own membership on this question.

And the history of reform has almost nothing to do—I shouldn’t say that. There has always been a struggle between these two wings in reform. But they have posed me as an anti-reformer, as though there are—since I’m not for market-style reforms, this testing mania, this narrow focus on prepping kids for a small selection of skills, that makes me a dupe of the union and an anti-reformer and someone who doesn’t care for the future of the economy or democracy. I think it’s been posed that way for so many years now.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Michael Klonsky for a minute, again, speaking to us from Chicago, where Arne Duncan is head of the schools there, now been picked as Education Secretary nominee by President-elect Obama. He’s a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind Act, called in 2006 for a doubling of the funds for it. What are your thoughts on that? And for people who really don’t follow education policy issues, what’s your assessment of No Child Left Behind?

MICHAEL KLONSKY: Well, I don’t think Duncan is really a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind. I remember when President Bush came out to Chicago and kind of cut a deal with Mayor Daley and got some kind of a tentative support for No Child. But I think Duncan has been pushing more for, like most big city superintendents, pushing more for kind of a loose application of No Child’s most punitive aspects. In other words, he’s been trying to get waivers for Chicago. He’s been trying to get rid of the—I mean, he’s really rejected the idea of moving kids out of schools. And so, I have to give him that.

Look, I think the real point is that we have an opportunity here to do something that the Bush administration has stopped us from doing. We need to put public back in public education. And I think Duncan, once he’s kind of liberated from Chicago, I think could be a person who could do that. I think he’s got to use the bully pulpit of the Department of Education to really promote support for urban public schools and for teachers. And I think we’ve got to get rid of No Child Left Behind’s approach, which has been to really turn the Department of Education into a cash cow for politically aligned companies and that have gone into the education business.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Michael Klonsky. I want to thank you for being with us, professor of education and director of the Small Schools Workshop and author of Small Schools. Deborah Meier, longtime school reform activist, now at the Steinhardt School of Education at NYU.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

KPFK in Los Angeles

Interview on Pacifica Radio

December 16, 2008

On the appointment of Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education

Listen to this segment | the entire program

Arne DuncanPresident-elect Barack Obama has picked the chief of Chicago’s Public school system to be his Secretary of Education. Arne Duncan has headed the nation’s third largest school system since 2001 and is a friend and basketball partner of Obama. Duncan must be confirmed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to be formally accepted as Education Secretary. The choice of Duncan is an interesting one given the various competing ideologies on education. On the one hand, those who want so-called “education reform,” are looking for an Education Secretary who will hold schools and teachers accountable for student test scores and are in wary of teachers’ unions. On the opposite side are the unions themselves and their Democratic Party supporters. With Duncan’s appointment, it seems as though the reformers have been placated, rather than the unions, who preferred Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Stanford University.

GUEST: Michael Klonsky, Chicago-based education activist and a leader in the so-called small schools movement. Read Klonsky’s blog at

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

On Arne Duncan's appointment

From Edweek's Campaign K-12 blog

Arne Duncan Out From Under Mayor Daley's Thumb?

My colleague, Catherine Gewertz, covers Chicago Public Schools as part of EdWeek's urban beat, and has been talking to folks all day about Arne Duncan's selection as President-elect Barack Obama's secretary of education, and what it means for federal education policy. There's a bigger EdWeek story that's forthcoming. What follows is a sampling of reaction she's hearing.

Michael Klonsky, a longtime Chicago activist and the director of the Small Schools Workshop, praised Mr. Duncan's support of small schools in the city. But he also said he has been concerned that as part of the work of growing the small-school concept there, Mr. Duncan has helped fuel a trend toward using private companies to manage schools. He said he has also been troubled that Mr. Duncan and Mayor Richard M. Daley have eliminated local school councils at some schools, making it harder for parents and the public to influence and access the goings-on at their schools.

"I am hopeful that once he is out from under the thumb of Mayor Daley and the political machine here, and is working with Obama's people, who I like and respect, Duncan can be liberated to do the things that I know are in his heart as a democratic educator," said Klonsky, who has helped incubate small schools in Chicago and elsewhere. "He can be a great spokesman for urban public education, even more now on a national scene where he's not chained to the ideology of the political machine here. I don't think Arne is an ideologue. He's a pragmatist at heart and a democrat."

Posted by Michele McNeil

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

"We started the Small Schools Workshop back in 1991 at UIC..."

School reform...Race To the Top...Unions...privatization...

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Guest blogger on Eduwonkette


Guest Blogger Mike Klonsky: The Small Schools Movement Meets the Ownership Society
(Part I)

We're well into Small Schools 2.0, which makes it an opportune time to reflect on the similarities and differences between the two small school reform waves. Joining us to discuss this issue is Mike Klonsky, author of a new book on small school reform and the blog Small Talk.

Thanks to Eduwonkette for inviting me in as a guest blogger to talk about our new book, Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society. She hasn’t told me yet how much $$$ I have to kick back her way. Just put it on my tab, 'Kette.

Susan Klonsky and I write from the perspective of long-time educators and school activists who were heavily influenced by democratic schooling (and de-schooling) movements in the ‘60s, including the Freedom Schools and Citizenship Schools that were central to the Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in the ‘60s.

The early small schools efforts in New York, Philly, and Chicago were filled with much of the same transformational spirit and sense of purpose. Mainly created by rebel teachers and supported by community-based organizations, the early small schools, beginning with Deb Meier’s Central Park East in 1974, had the potential to be much more than replicable models of corporate-type restructuring (in the Starbucks sense). For us, they were primarily ways to engage whole school communities in the education of children.

Many of the new small schools were democratically run and focused on making kids more visible and on building a professional community of teachers. Even the early charter schools that followed, pioneered by progressive thinkers like Ted Kolderie, Ted Sizer, Joe Nathan, Albert Shanker and Ray Budde, looked nothing like today’s chains of Edison and KIPP schools. Words like autonomy and choice didn’t mean what they mean now under the Bloomberg/Klein reforms in N.Y. or Daley/Duncan Renaissance 2010 in Chicago. Autonomy meant teachers would have more power over their teaching/learning environments and be freed up from stupid rules, while choice meant expanding choices and options within local schools for students with diverse interests and ways of learning.

Our book tells the story about what happened when that movement ran head-long into the "Ownership Society" (to use George Bush’s own campaign slogan) with its penchant for eroding public space in favor on shock-and-awe privatization, standardization, and school closings. The early small schools visionaries couldn’t have imagined their efforts to create a critical and innovative force within public education being taken over by corporate-type school operators and program vendors. They wouldn’t have dreamed of chains of small schools, bankrolled by the world’s richest men—schools actively excluding ELL kids or students with disabilities for the first two to three years.

How could this have happened? Is there a way out of the quagmire? More on this to follow.

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Mike, Thanks again for guest blogging. Let me start off the discussion by asking whether you believe that the founders or the framework in which founders work has changed. My impression is that the same kinds of people who were founding small schools in the 1990s are founding them now, but small schools leaders are now faced with accountability requirements that make it difficult to serve the populations they wanted to serve.

Posted by: eduwonkette | April 15, 2008 2:42 PM

Thank you for writing about the exclusionary nature of most charter schools. Students with IEP’s find themselves worse off after enrolling in their parent’s “dream” school; it’s not much different from disadvantaged folks who hit the big money lottery and find themselves in a worse position ten years later.

In particular, KIPP forcibly changes IEP’s to match the student with their unindividualized SETTS-or-Bust program. Promise Academy administrators bully their green twenty-something staff into referring kids with mild behavior problems to District 75 schools. Future Leaders Institute can’t even figure out which kids are supposed to receive services in the first place. And just try finding a related services provider in one of their schools. Kids with reading delays don’t get speech/language therapy and then get blamed for their inability to meet reading standards.

One diamond in the rough: Opportunity Charter Schools. It’s difficult to determine if they’re making genuine academic gains versus non-charter peers. On the other hand, they’ve done an outstanding job picking staff that is genuinely dedicated to the students. Their social workers are the best in the city, truly know the kids, and connect with their parents at a deep level.

Posted by: jack | April 15, 2008 8:02 PM

Guest blogger on Eduwonkette (Part 2)

Guest Blogger Mike Klonsky Part II: Deb Meier’s Innovation Became Bloomberg’s Bulldozer

Mike Klonsky is back with the second half of his guest post. His first post can be found here.

Public school reform could not help but be affected by power and influence of the Ownership Society Anschluss that went full-tilt at all public space, including public schooling, eight years ago.

Deb Meier, reflecting on her early notions of small schools, posted this on her blog:

I thought small schools was one reform no one could do harm with… I saw them as representing new ideas and new relationships between the constituents to schooling. I thought of Ted Sizer's little Parker School in Fort Devons, Mass, and a half dozen other little schools I immediately loved. I forgot about the little independent bookstores in my neighborhood that have been replaced by the Barnes and Nobles of the world.

But when the small-schools movement that she helped launch in the ‘70s met up with the Ownership Society and its top-down strategy for urban school reform, it became clear to many of us that we had to take a fresh look our own change strategies. As Jessica Siegel wrote in the Village Voice: “…what for Meier was an innovation has become, for Klein and Bloomberg, a bulldozer.”

In the last chapter, we offer some strategic and tactical ideas about public school reform and how we can work to both save and transform public education. They include an analysis of the role of teacher unions, and building opposition to NCLB’s testing mania and privatized school management. A key piece in all of this is community organization and fighting to keep public schools public.

And a new study funded by the Annenberg Institute seems to back us up on that. It finds:

-Organizing is helping to expand the capacity of urban public schools to provide a successful earning environment.

-Organizing is contributing to higher student educational outcomes.

-Organizing is helping to expand equity and school capacity in historically underserved communities through targeted district- and state-level policy and resource interventions.

So, in the words of the old labor agitator, Mother Jones: “Don’t mourn. Organize.”

Thanks again to Eduwonkette for letting me guest blog and I hope you will read our book.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Politics of Fear

Somehow, I have become a centerpiece in the 2008 elections. The McCain/Palin campaign has targeted me, along with Small Schools Workshop founder Bill Ayers, as part of a vicious guilt-by-association campaign against Senator Obama. Victims of the campaign's collateral damage also include the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, the Woods Fund, ACORN, Rev. Wright, Chicago school reform and the small-schools movement.

The fear campaign has been gleefully carried on by a bevy of right-wing bloggers, and other usual suspects like FOX News, Rush Limbaugh, Andrew McCarthy, Stanley Kurtz, Sol Stern and other Swift-boat types. So far it appears that the overwhelming majority of the American people (and voters) have rejected the attacks of Obama. But my reputation and that of the Small Schools Workshop where I have worked for the past 17 years, has been damaged.

I have chosen not to respond openly to specific charges until after the November 4th elections. I want to thank all those friends and supporters of me, my work and of the Small Schools Workshop, who have stood by us through these difficult times.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Quoted in Edweek

Edweek’s Eric Robelen, writing about charter school management companies (CMOs), finds a critical voice. It’s me.

…critics say that CMOs are a far cry from the original idea of charter schools, and that the networks have attracted oversize support from foundations. Michael Klonsky, the director of the Small Schools Workshop in Chicago and a longtime adviser to small-school startups across the country, including some charters, says CMOs go against the idea that grassroots communities should play an integral role in creating charter schools. “Somebody with a big idea about schools and a million dollars from Mr. Gates or Mr. Broad comes into a community and plops it down,” he says.

Nothing I haven’t said a million times, including in our latest book.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reviewed in Horace

Horace Book Review
Horace Summer 2008, Vol. 24 No. 2

Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society by Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky (Routledge, 209 pages, $26.95)

Mike and Susan Klonsky’s Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society deserves to have sunscreen stains on its pages and sand within as an unlikely recommended summer read for CES network educators. Okay, if there’s a great novel that you’ve been saving for the week that school’s out, read that first. But before school starts up again,* read Small Schools to get angry and radicalized, to remind yourself of the extraordinary value of your work, to cheer for yourselves as worthy alternative underdogs, and to rekindle your fire.

A nightmare gallery of monsters menace public education, and the Klonskys invoke some of the most frightening: the gang of politicians, foundations, think tanks, and corporations that have invaded schools during the still-current Bush administration. Documenting the ways that “the progressive grassroots educational reform movement for small schools has been hijacked by business groups, right-wing ideologues, and the ideology of the Ownership Society,” the Klonskys throw readers into the deep end of the small schools movement, the threats posed by corporate and governmental encroachment on public education, and the toxic ground on which privatization forces have co-opted small schools for corporate gain, both in the authors’ home turf of Chicago and elsewhere.

The breathless pace slows in the first chapter, which unpacks small schools’ “traditional democratic values of Deweyan progressivism combined with Information Age notions of professional community, personalization, and safe learning environments in an unsafe society.” This chapter focuses on the story of opposing school reform movements in Chicago, serving as a useful primer on that city’s tension around school size, control, and ideas of whom its schools are for. This inside baseball of Chicago politics, school reform, and role of the Klonskys’ Small School workshop is contextualized within the movement that includes Deborah Meier’s work in New York’s District Four, southern Freedom Schools, and other results of progressive efforts around the country. This chapter also captures the “politics of disaster” that have been created in response to public schooling’s complex challenge, describing how a deficit model of education has evolved to dismantle existing public systems.

The sprawling second chapter details and defines the forces and practices of the Ownership Society and its “all-out assault on teachers, public schools, and public space in general.” Featured in President Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, the term was intended to sell the idea that individual citizens should control health care, finances, education, and other key factors of their lives. The Klonskys vehemently oppose the political practices that exemplify the Ownership Society, and their arguments effectively encapsulate the rhetorical co-option of words and ideas—such as the very concept of small schools—that may have originated from the grassroots progressive education movement, but have come to be fully integrated into the current administration’s “demagoguery.” This is compelling stuff. It’s also densely written and presented in a careening trajectory that might have benefited from chapter headings.

The third chapter deals with the privatization of our school systems. When the Klonskys write, “In many districts around the country, the best of the small and charter schools have indeed become agents of change, responding to a national sense that the traditional system of public education needs transformation,” you’ll think “Hey, that’s us! That’s CES.” But such schools are anomalies whose existence emphasizes the gulf between intended purpose of charter schools—to provide stimuli to the system and grassroots-driven alternatives—and their current uses as for-profit collectives that rob the public system.

The book concludes with considerations of the role of philanthropy, with most of its attention on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a CES funder). “It’s hard to say whether the world’s richest man has been part of the problem or part of the solution,” the Klonskys observe. They are far less ambivalent on the role of conservative think tanks that rose to power on a tide of private funding and adept use of technologies that allowed them to emerge from the shadows.

The conclusion “Alternatives to Top-Down Reform,” offers a welcome, and familiar, note of hope, with its faith in the power of professional learning communities. Critical Friends Groups to the rescue! Though its documentation of the forces that oppose what we know works to educate children, and preserve and improve the intellectual and other forms of health of their communities, is daunting and at times heavy-handed, you’ll finish Small Schools with renewed faith in your work as a CES network educator, and a healthy infusion of anger and energy.

* Year round schools: the bane of the education book reviewer. Sorry to slight those of you who are at year-round schools, but you still experience summer, yes? And you still read? Apply this as you see fit (Horace suggests liberally).

This resource last updated: July 24, 2008

Database Information:

Source: Horace Summer 2008, Vol. 24 No. 2
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: CES National
School Level: All
Audience: New to CES, Teacher, Parent
Issue: 24.2

Friday, July 11, 2008

Quoted in Gazette.Net (Maryland)

...Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, the students would be separated into smaller, 400-student clusters within the school buildings.

...‘‘It enables teaching to become personalized and enables teachers to connect the curriculum to kids’ own experiences and lives, and research shows that’s key to the intellectual development of youngsters, especially kids from low-income families and minority students,” said Michael Klonsky, director of the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop and author of ‘‘Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story.” Klonsky has also co-authored ‘‘Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.”

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reviewed in Teachers College Record

By Clive Harber — June 30, 2008

Title: Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society
Author(s): Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415961238, Pages: 209, Year: 2008
Search for book at

The title of the series in which this book is published is “Education, Politics and Culture” which suits the lively and politically committed content very well. Fundamentally, the book is about how a progressive educational movement aimed at facilitating smaller and more democratic urban schools in America became hijacked by the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration and its many powerful allies. In so doing it cannot fail to tackle the wider educational and political issues of the last eight years and their antecedents, which it does with admirable clarity and detail.

Although school size is important, the small schools movement has traditionally been more about a democratic ideology of education that rejects the mass, bureaucratized authoritarianism of many large publicly funded schools. Smaller schools potentially make it more possible to organize education in a more supportive, inclusive, egalitarian and humanitarian way. Moreover, this smaller scale is also seen to have significant curricular advantages in that learning can be cooperatively designed to meet personalized learning needs rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach of larger, more conventional schools. The democratic ideas behind the small school movement stem from both the ideas of John Dewey and progressive educational writers of the 1960’s and 70’s and the practical realities of trying to provide a higher quality and more meaningful educational experience for alienated and marginalized young people in American cities. Indeed, the book reviews evidence that suggests that small schools of this sort were indeed providing better learning outcomes and a safer and friendlier learning environment.

The problem that the book confronts is that the notion of freedom contained in the decentralized ability to set up small, but still essentially public, schools concerned directly with issues of social justice has come up against another notion of freedom based on the private market and a consumer notion of freedom. The book discusses how the original small school movement grew in strength, size and influence via the introduction of public Charter Schools, and how the Bush administration and its local allies in big cities have used the greater autonomy of these schools to essentially privatize them by bringing in private management companies with many close ties to the administration itself. Ostensibly these are “not-for profit” organizations but there are many indirect ways of making considerable sums of money from the now essentially privately run schools such as:

•Creating non-profit organisations to obtain the charter and then hiring themselves to run the school

•Hiring younger, less experienced and less qualified staff which are therefore cheaper

•Charter companies teaming up with developers to offer home buyers an upscale amenity – tuition-free, taxpayer-funded schools for their developments

Moreover, in the increasingly privatized context of a single-minded focus on standardized test scores and a punitive approach to low-performing schools, there is little time or concern for children with special needs or children with English as a second language.

Rather than reduce the role of the state, except in terms of the funding of public schools, the Bush administration has used the power of the state embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, to control education by enforcing a “teaching to the test” mentality that reduces both the range and depth of the curriculum. In this way schools can be compared in the market place via their test scores, and closed or taken over by private management companies as appropriate. Thus the Ownership Society, the term that the authors use to describe what has happened, uses government as a conduit for public funding of politically aligned private enterprise. In order to justify this they use a post-9/11 language of permanent crisis in education, further hijacking the radical critiques of conventional schooling, to provide a narrow, privatized alternative of their own making.

However, the book argues that most of the resulting privatized small schools have become big schools with authoritarian principals, disempowered and uninspired educators, dubious high-stakes tests and Eurocentric curricula. Indeed, the need to keep costs low through economies of scale has also meant that the size of the schools has inevitably started to drift upwards.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide interesting reading on the role of both philanthropists and well-funded conservative think-tanks in the top-down nature of the whole process. The first by holding the purse strings and setting non-negotiable conditions—making schools offers they can’t refuse—and the second by providing the philosophical underpinning of the changes and by dominating the discourse of educational reform. The final chapter strikes a more optimistic note about the future and the need for democratic civic engagement with public education by parents, teachers and students, trying to get the initiative back into the hands of the key participants and stakeholders.

For all those in America and elsewhere concerned about not simply giving into the models of education that have been imposed from above by a decidedly right-wing government, this is an informative and useful book. It may even be that the ushering in of a new administration in January 2009 will create a political environment where the original small school ideas of democracy and social justice can flourish and grow once again. However, experience in the UK where a right-wing government gave way to a supposedly centre-left one in 1997 does not make me particularly hopeful, as the educational machinery stayed essentially the same and some screws were even tightened. One thing that is for certain is that the arguments will go on and the supporters of democratic small schools will need to mobilize to put pressure on the new administration. I wish them luck from afar.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2008 ID Number: 15296, Date Accessed: 7/6/2008 4:52:05 PM

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Thursday, April 03, 2008

Now Available

Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society
By Michael & Susan Klonsky

ISBN: 9780415961233
ISBN-10: 0415961238
Publisher: Routledge
Pages: 224
List Price: $26.95

When education activists in New York, Chicago, and other urban school districts in the 1980s began the small-schools movement, they envisioned a new kind of public school system that was fair and equitable and that encouraged new relationships between teachers and students. When that movement for school reform ran head-on into the neo-conservative takeover of the Department of Education and its No Child Left Behind strategy for school change, a new model of federal power bent on the erosion of public space and the privatization of public schooling emerged. Michael and Susan Klonsky, educators who were among the early leaders of the small-schools movement, tell the story of how a once-promising model of creating new small and charter schools has been used by the neocons to reproduce many of the old inequities. Small Schools is the engaging story of what happens when the small-schools movement meets the Ownership Society.

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

Small Schools and Social Justice

A Simple Justice: The Challenge for Small Schools

by William Ayers (Editor), Gabrielle H Lyon (Editor), Michael Klonsky (Editor)

About this title: Written by major players in the small schools movement, this collection of essays points to the ways school restructuring strategies connect to the ongoing pursuit of social justice. Building bridges to their fellow educators, these essayists make powerful arguments in favor of smaller school size as an achievable reform goal.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The "Politics of Disaster" at AERA

March 28, 2008

Schooling and the Politics of Disaster: The Privatization of Civic Life and the Destruction of Community

Schooling and the Politics of Disaster: The Privatization of Civic Life and the Destruction of Community

Session Participants:

Chair: Kenneth J. Saltman (DePaul University)

Capitalizing on Disaster: Public School Privatization From the Gulf Coast to the Persian Gulf
*Kenneth J. Saltman (DePaul University)

Feasting on Disaster: Urban School Policy, Globalization, and the Politics of Disaster
*Pauline Lipman (University of Illinois - Chicago)

The Small Schools Movement Meets the Ownership Society *William C. Ayers (University of Illinois - Chicago)

The Small Schools Movement Meets the Ownership Society *Michael Klonsky

Benign Neglect? Drowning Yellow Buses, Racism, and Disinvestment in the City That Bush Forgot *Kristen L. Buras (Emory University)

The Quiet Disaster of No Child Left Behind: Standardization and Deracialization Breed Inequality *Enora R. Brown (DePaul University)

Discussant: Michael W. Apple (University of Wisconsin - Madison)

This highly original panel addresses how disaster is being used for the radical social and economic engineering of education. From the natural disasters of the Asian tsunami and the hurricanes in the Gulf Coast to the human made disasters in Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Sudan, Indonesia, the United States, and around the globe, disaster is shaping politics. Terror and security dominate political debates and frame issues while the spectacle of disaster sells policy and commodities alike. Following both the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina school privatization advocates took advantage of disaster to implement charter schools, voucher schemes, and deregulation of education while educational profiteers secured exclusive rebuilding contracts.The panel is important, topical, and related to the annual conference theme as it recognizes not only a new form of educational privatization, but it is also important for intervening in what is an attack on community and civic life. While Iraq and New Orleans may seem like rare and isolated cases of privatization advocates capitalizing on disaster, the papers in this panel illustrate that these extreme examples typify a much larger and even dominant domestic trend in education. Indeed as some papers contend, on a national level No Child Left Behind sets schools up to be designated as “failed” to be closed and then reopened in a number of experimental forms including charter schools and for profit schools. Under the current guidelines of NCLB most public schools in the U.S. are headed for this outcome. On a local level such mass closures and experimental reopenings are already happening in major cities such as Chicago, Boston, and Portland, Oregon. As communities suffer the dismantling of public schools and coordinated assaults on public housing and other public services, the possibilities for democratic civic life and participatory forms of democracy are imperiled. This phenomenon involves much more than privatization including matters of school funding, the culture of schooling, organizational models for school systems, educational leadership, the role of think tanks in policy and reform, the relationship between educational politics and foreign policy. Panelists address concrete and specific examples of how natural and unnatural disaster is being used to transform education including No Child Left Behind, the War on Terror, Hurricane Katrina, the making of educational funding crises in the U.S., the role of educational think tanks in planning for disaster response, and the Iraq War. Some papers take a broader perspective on disaster including consideration of how schooling has been shaped by the disasters produced by globalization and the legacy of colonialism, ideologies of neoliberalism and neoconservatism, and how media spectacle of disaster functions pedagogically to educate the public about pressing matters. Papers range from policy oriented to philosophical, employing political economic anaylysis, discourse analyis, ethnographic research, and conceptual theoretical argumentation drawing on critical theoretical traditions inside and outside the field of education.